An agreement between the world’s museums to stop buying or accepting ancient artifacts obtained in dubious ways would be the best way to protect the world’s antiquities from being looted for profit, the noted archaeologist British Andrew Colin Renfrew, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, said in an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) published on Saturday.
On the return of the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum to Greece, Lord Renfrew said he was in favour of their return eventually but only as part of a general agreement that stipulated which antiquities should be returned to their countries of origin and which should not.
“The reason why I think that it would be right, in the long run, to return the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens is that they belong to a specific building that is still standing,” he said. Even though the sculptures would not be placed on the Parthenon itself, the New Acropolis Museum had done an excellent job in presenting the authentic sculptures in such a way that one could simultaneously view the real Acropolis from the windows, he pointed out.
“I believe, however, that there must be an international agreement. We do not want to see the museums of the world emptied of their contents. The case, however, for returning sculptures to the monuments where they belong is truly very strong,” he said.
Renfrew was dismissive, however, of occasional efforts made by celebrities, such as actor George Clooney, to support the case for the sculptures’ return and generate publicity surrounding the issue.
“I do not believe that sort of publicity helps, as I did not agree with the way that Melina Mercouri handled the issue…It is preferable if governments make serious efforts and encourage museums to draw up international agreements concerning cases involving antiquities,” he said.
He was similarly dismissive of suggestions that the Parthenon Marbles return could be linked with Brexit in any way, noting that the two issues were entirely unrelated.
Asked about his impressions from his early days in Greece, when antiquities were being routinely smuggled out of the country, Renfrew agreed that the museum’s of the world were “full of Cycladic material, which was almost always exported illegally from Greece.” He underlined the great damage done and especially the valuable information lost as a result, even if these finds eventually found their way to a museum somewhere.
Asked about the reasons why the practice was so hard to stop, Renfrew was clear: “It is the money, plain and simple. Cycladic idols and other sculptures, vases and objects from prehistory and the early history of the world are sold at auction in every part of the world. And, as you know, Cycladic idols can be sold for millions of dollars.”
Given the great incentives and the difficulty of policing the finds, there was no easy solution to the problem, he added.
“I believe the main one is that museums agree not to buy and to not accept as gifts antiquities that have been exported illegally from their country of origin after 1970, the year set down by the UNESCO convention. If this convention is really followed, then I believe the prices of antiquities in markets and at auction will fall, because demand will be lower…though private collectors will continue to buy them. Unfortunately, we are not near such an agreement,” he said.
While this practice was adopted by the largest museums in the world, new museums emerging in Japan and the Middle East did not have a clear ethical policy and still paid large sums for antiquities, while the same problem occurred with antiquities from Mexico and South America.
“Private collectors pay money for objects and give them to museums, getting praise and prestige, when the opposite should happen. That is the problem,” Renfrew added.
The interview also talked about the 80-year-old archaeologist’s lengthy career in the field and his work on the Greek island of Keros, on the remains of what he considers to be the oldest known island sanctuary in the world so far.
Explaining his claims about the Keros sanctuary, Renfrew said that the majority of sanctuaries having symbolic or religious importance had been found on the mainland, such as Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, which was very far from the sea.
“We have good carbon dating from our digs in Dhaskalio, the small island next to Keros that was probably linked by a land bridge in prehistoric times (circa 2500 BC)…the Dhaskalio settlement is the oldest on Keros so far, probably starting in 2700 BC and continuing until 2000 BC when it was abandoned.”
Archaeologists were currently trying to piece together the mystery behind the sanctuary on Keros, which was full of fragments of broken Cycladic figurines that appeared to have been brought there after they were broken elsewhere, Renfrew said.
“We have done a lot of research on this; we have found some pieces that are connected but very few.
Roughly 10 pct can be joined with others, mostly a leg with a foot, but not much else. For this reason we say that they must have been broken elsewhere…our conclusion is that they must have broken on their islands, where the figurines were in use, and the parts brought to Kavos on Keros,” he said.